Sometimes when theologians turn their attention to exploring the doctrine of the Trinity, it can quickly become dense and really tough to get your head around. That is certainly true of the theologians of the ancient church, who first took the seeds of the doctrine in evidence in the bible, and attempted to articulate it in its fullness. The Trinitarian Nicene Creed that we will proclaim at the end of the sermon was painstakingly worked out by the bishops at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381), with no small amount of debate, controversy, and—at least for a time—division. Phrases such as “eternally begotten”, “of one being with the Father”, and “proceeds from” are English translations of very precise Greek words and philosophical concepts that have caused many an aching brain amongst first year seminary students. Many a time I heard fellow students cry out in near despair, “how am I ever going to use this in a parish? I’m called to ministry with real people living ordinary lives…” And some would do all in their power to avoid taking systematic theology courses, opting instead for biblical studies and what they assumed were the more practical, pastoral theology courses.
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Thankfully, I persevered, and the following year landed myself in a course called “The Triune God,” taught by a Catholic theologian named Margaret O’Gara. Now Margaret was not only a superb teacher, she also had a deep sense that Trinitarian theology was, among other things, a most pastoral kind of theology. Yes, we had to trudge through some of the dense stuff, but she also helped us to discover the more poetic, imaginative, and even playful face of Trinitarian thought. Who knew that St Augustine—so often characterized as being a serious and even dour thinker—could be so playful when it came to exploring images of God as Triune? Evagrius famously said that the theologian is the one whose prayer is true, but there in that class I began to see that the best theologians are also ones whose poetic play is true. Ever since then, I have relished preaching on this day.
Many of you will recall the years that I arranged to have a juggler here to preach alongside of me, keeping those three balls in a steady rhythmic motion that is such a strong visual of how three can be at the same time one. And perhaps the greatest insight of that specific image is that if the juggler were to hold on to one of the balls for just a bit too long, the whole works collapses to the floor. The Trinity is movement; it is—to use one of the most ancient images—a dance.
One of the theological writers of our own day who has best captured this is an American Presbyterian named Baxter Kruger. In his book The Great Dance, Kruger writes of his own awakening to the truth of the dance. He writes of how midway through his doctoral studies he was suddenly, stunningly awakened to the fact that,
“God is not some faceless, all-powerful abstraction.”
God is Father, Son and Spirit, existing in a passionate and joyous fellowship. The Trinity is not three highly committed religious types sitting around some room in heaven. The Trinity is a circle of shared life, and the life shared is full, not empty, abounding and rich and beautiful, not lonely and sad and boring… The great dance is all about the abounding life shared by the Father, Son and Spirit.
“It all boils down to three things,” he continues.
First, there is the Trinity and the great dance of life and glory and joy shared by the Father, Son and Spirit; second, there is the incarnation as the act of the Father, Son and Spirit reaching down, extending the circle, their great dance of life, to us; third, there is our humanity, which is the theatre in which the great dance is played out through the Spirit. That is what motherhood and fatherhood are all about. That is what fishing and baseball and playing are all about, and laughter and romance, cookouts and work. They are the ways the beauty of Father, Son and Spirit, the great dance of the Triune God, the glory, the fellowship, the life are played out in us.
Years ago I listened to a recording of one of Kruger’s lectures, and in his distinctly southern drawl he talked about spending a sunny afternoon at the ball park with his son, watching baseball, sipping a cold beer, eating a hot dog, and feeling utter and joyous contentment in it all. “Do you think that joy comes from you?”
The thing is, though, that not all of us feel that joy; certainly not all of the time, and maybe for some it seldom comes. If you’re walking with a lot of weight on your shoulders, it is hard to imagine ever getting caught up in that dance; maybe hard to even imagine that this is what God is like. And so we need to pay attention to other imaginative and poetic voices, who can speak other imagery into the whole.
For me, one of those other voices is the jazz legend John Coltrane, whose piece “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” alerted me to the limits of human language to ever completely describe God. The first time I heard Coltrane’s piece, I honestly thought it was little more than an unstructured barrage of intense sound; part of the free jazz explorations of the mid-60s. Two sax players, two drummers, a bass and piano, just playing. Playing hard, and apparently embracing dissonance for the ten minutes that the piece runs. What has this to do with the Trinity?
And then I listened again, and was aware that at the 48 second mark Coltrane’s tenor can be heard picking out what is the closest thing to a melodic line in the piece; an eleven-note run expressing the eleven syllables in the title— “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost”. Over the course of just over a minute, he plays it twenty-two times in different keys. It is very clearly there.
And then I listened again, and began to realize that it was not just free-blowing noise, but is in fact three layers of sound; three voices, so to speak. Up front is the first voice, the sometimes honking and squealing horns of the two saxophone players, along with an insistent hammering on a tambourine when the second sax player, Pharoah Sanders, doesn’t have the horn in his mouth. Just barely behind this lies the second voice, the percussive attack of the two drummers, one heard in each of the two stereo channels. Yet another step in sits the third voice—the bass and piano—which together provide the ensemble a bare approximation of an anchor. The three voices weave in and through and around each other in a manner entirely in keeping with the Trinitarian title of the piece, but rather than speaking in terms of a dance or the delight of baseball or romance, it speaks to the unfathomable mystery and untamable power and freedom of the divine. No sign of a juggler here, but if there was one he’d be juggling chain saws and at such a speed that your eyes could not tell one from the other.
Don’t get too tidy with your imagery, Jamie. That’s what Coltrane said to me. Yes, delight in the imagery of dance and juggling and beauty and harmony, but know the limits of any imagery. Sometimes you just need to stand slack-jawed and exhausted in the face of the unfathomable mystery of God.
And yet. One more poetic voice, and this time one that speaks both to the weight that we often carry in our oh so human lives, and to the redemptive, creative promise of the dance. These are the closing lines of Malcolm Guite’s sonnet for Trinity Sunday:
God calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.